New Angels outfielder Vernon Wells surely will return from his groin injury and lift his .183 batting average from below the Mendoza line to something more befitting the high-priced major leaguer that he is. But whatever he does do, the trade that sent Wells and much of the hefty amount left on his contract from Toronto to the Angels was still the Holy Grail of trades for the Blue Jays and the best move made this winter by any team. In a shock to everyone in baseball, the Angels -- apparently desperate to add a big bat after failing to sign Carl Crawford -- took all but $5 million of the $86 million to go on Wells' deal. Originally the teams announced that the Angels were taking the whole contract. That proved to good to be true for the Blue Jays, though not by much very much.
The trade of Wells heads the early list of the best moves of the winter so far:
1. The Blue Jays send Wells and $5 million to the Angels for catcher Mike Napoli. The remarkable thing about this deal was that Wells had a no-trade clause and limited the teams to which he would accept a trade to the Angels and his hometown Rangers. With Texas not interested, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos had to make a deal with the Angels if one was to be made at all. Fortunately for Toronto, the Angels needed to add offense and were turned off by a free-agent market that was yielding monster deals to the best players. Wells had a decent bounce-back year in 2010, making the All-Star team and hitting 31 homers, which it turns out was just enough to convince the Angels they were getting a productive middle-of-the-order hitter. The Angels also apparently sold themselves (or maybe Toronto sold them) that they were getting a star on the shorter term of four years. What the Blue Jays actually did get was financial relief to the max. Anthopoulos said by phone, "Financially, it put us in better position to do what we wanted to do.'' As a bonus, the Blue Jays got back hard-hitting catcher Mike Napoli, who they then sent to Texas for hard-throwing righthander Frank Francisco, who's become a co-closer in Toronto and has three saves.
2. Blue Jays sign Jose Bautista to a $65-million, five-year contract extension. Toronto saved themselves tens of millions with this master stroke, building on the brilliance of the Wells deal. Anthopoulos was annihilated at the time, as some figured he was wasting the money saved from the Wells miracle. But by giving big bucks to Bautista, who some figured was a one-year wonder after he hit 54 home runs in 2010, it turns out Anthopoulos kept the player who has turned into a superstar in Toronto. Bautista has not only improved from his alleged career year, he has been the best player in baseball this season. And it's not really close. He has an otherworldly 1.301 OPS overall (and a crazy 1.772 OPS at home). As Rays manager Joe Maddon said, Bautista is like Barry Bonds, circa 2001. Anthopoulos said, "I'm done saying he can't do something. I'm just going to watch and enjoy.'' Bautista really can't be blamed for quickly capitalizing on his out-of-nowhere season. How could anyone have known even better was yet to come? But it looks now like if Bautista had waited, he would have joined Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols in the superstar free-agent market this winter and probably beaten $150 million. And the Jays would have been out of luck.
3. Cardinals sign Lance Berkman for $8 million. Some folks figured the Cardinals had gone mad thinking Berkman could play the outfield. Well, he can, at least adequately. And it turns out he has plenty of hits left in that bat of his. Berkman has bounced back from his worst year as a pro in Houston and the Bronx (.781 OPS) to have his best start. In fact, Berkman has been the best hitter in the National League, with a 1.179 OPS. He's been so good that Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton ripped him for allegedly being out of shape last year while in Houston, even though Berkman was great for years there. The surprise is that he's still great, at age 35.
4. Phillies sign Cliff Lee for five years. At $120 million, it may not be a bargain like many of these others (though Lee could have gotten at least an additional $28 million with the Yankees, and probably even more than that). It's surely no surprise that the Lee signing may well turn out to have the greatest impact. While Lee is only 2-3 with a 3.69 ERA so far, he leads the NL in strikeouts with 60 as the Fab Four has generally lived up to its billing for the first-place Phillies.
5. Royals sign Jeff Francoeur, Bruce Chen, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francis for $8.2 million total. Royals GM Dayton Moore, an executive in Atlanta when Francoeur had back-to-back 100-RBI seasons in 2006 and 2007, the first two full seasons of his career, emphasizes Francoeur's strengths and doesn't obsess on the glaring weakness, which is that he swings too often and rarely walks. "He brings defense, energy, competitiveness and a knack for scoring runs and driving in runs,'' Moore said. "He doesn't have a knack for getting on base ... but he has gotten better at getting on base.'' Moore admits it's early, but so far Francoeur (.928 OPS, $2.7 million) looks like the fellow who broke in with the Braves. Cabrera (23 runs, $1.5 million) also is recapturing some magic from his 2009 season with the Yankees while Chen (4-1, 3.59 ERA, $2 million) is continuing to look like the late bloomer that finally blossomed last year. Some wonder how the slow-throwing Chen does it. Moore said he believes it's that "you don't see a lot of pitchers with his style anymore,'' meaning the crafty lefthander. Francis, two years removed from shoulder surgery, is providing serviceable starts.
6. Yankees sign the cost-efficient Russell Martin, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Eric Chavez. The Yankees are known for their big-ticket signings, but here for $7.9 million, they got a starting catcher who's hit six home runs already (Martin, $4 million), two viable starting pitchers (Garcia, 2.61 ERA, $1.5 million plus incentives; Colon, 3.86 ERA, $900,00) and a top bench player (Chavez, .303, $1.5 million). The Yankees liked Martin enough that they considered trading for him before the tender deadline. But there wasn't time for Yankees GM Brian Cashman to get Martin examined and obtain the approval from new boss Hal Steinbrenner in time to make a trade. After Martin, who missed much of last year with a hip injury, was non-tendered by the Dodgers, the Yankees easily outbid the Red Sox, then gave what Martin what Cashman termed "the longest physical in team history.'' They were satisfied Martin's hip and health were "relatively good'' and expected a good defender. "We always liked Russell Martin,'' Cashman said. "We weren't sure if his power would come back but we still thought he'd be above average defensively.'' Cashman liked the crafty Garcia on a non-roster deal as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter. Colon was a complete flier, though Cashman said their scouts saw potential in winter ball even though he wasn't throwing anywhere near the 96 mph he's flashed this year. Chavez was fitting in wonderfully before broke his foot, an injury Cashman said will sideline him eight to 12 weeks. Cashman is also right so far in that Rafael Soriano (5.79 ERA), whose signing Cashman was not in favor of, hasn't been worth the $35 million.
7. Red Sox acquire Adrian Gonzalez in a trade for three prospects, and sign him for $154 million over seven years. Some folks in Boston are wondering why there isn't more power. But Gonzalez has had a solid start in Boston, with six homers, 28 RBIs and .324 batting average, plus a .545 slugging percentage. He's a streak hitter, so the homers will come in bunches.
8. White Sox re-sign Paul Konerko for $37.5 million over three years. The 35-year-old Konerko is a professional hitter who seems to get better with age. Also, Konerko (9 HRs, 28 RBIs, .328) doesn't seem to be affected by all those struggling around him in the lineup.
9. Tigers sign Victor Martinez for $52 million and four years. Martinez was out earlier but he's returned with a vengeance, sparking the red-hot Tigers. He has a .523 slugging percentage with three home runs and 19 RBIs.
10. Brewers acquire righthanded pitcher Shaun Marcum from Toronto for prospect Brett Lawrie. Marcum has been the Brewers' most consistent starter, going 4-1 with a 2.72 ERA while striking out 50 in 49 2/3 innings despite a fastball in the high 80s. Lawrie is an exciting young player and one of the best righthanded hitting prospects in the minors, but Marcum is a necessity for Milwaukee.
11. Pirates hire Clint Hurdle as manager. The eternally upbeat Hurdle turned out to be the perfect fit for an organization on an 18-year losing streak. There are 10 new managers, but he just might be the best fit. If anyone thought the Pirates could be 500 at this point, it was Hurdle.
12. Nationals acquire Tom Gorzelanny from the Cubs for three prospects. Gorzelanny had a solid year for Chicago in 2010, but has been close to unhittable at times for the Nationals this year. Has a 0.90 WHIP so far, and has allowed just 21 hits in 37 2/3 innings.
13. Padres sign Aaron Harang. After years of being overpaid, Harang is finally underpaid at $4 million. He is 4-2 with a 4.07 ERA.
14. Rays acquire Sam Fuld in seven-player deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. Eventually, the Rays hope Chris Archer will be the key to this deal. Garza has pitched decently in Chicago (58 strikeouts) but is hampered by a lack of support so far. Fuld has slumped in recent weeks and is down to .238 but was such an overnight sensation in Tampa with so many spectacular catches that sparked the team that he started to be called Superman Sam Fuld.
15. Indians sign Jack Hannahan. Hannahan has provided superb defense at third base in the Indians' improbable run, and has chipped in with some big hits (4, 15, .260), as well. Adam Everett (.332) has also contributed at that position for the Indians.
16. Rays put together a bullpen on a shoestring again. Closer Kyle Farsnworth ($3.25 million) was the one high-priced pickup, and he has a 0.73 ERA thus far. Also doing well are Juan Cruz ($850,000, 2.57 ERA), Joel Peralta ($925,000, 3.00) and Adam Russell ($420,800, 2.84).
17. Rangers sign Adrian Beltre for $80 million over five years (the deal could hit $96 million for six years). Sure, that's steep. But Beltre has been as advertised, with eight homers, 28 RBIs and incredible defense.
18. Pirates sign Kevin Correia. At 5-3 with a 3.25 ERA, Correia seems to be returning to his 2009 success after a rough 2010 season in San Diego. "Our scouts saw very similar stuff in 2009 and 2010,'' Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "Our analysis indicated he was a strong bounce-back candidate.''
19. Rays sign Johnny Damon. The other half of the tandem of veteran hitters the Rays signed, Manny Ramirez, didn't work out as well. Damon, meanwhile, had five walkoff hits in a row at one point, and has also hit five home runs.
20. Mets take Pedro Beato in the Rule V draft. The Brooklyn product has been perfect in relief, going 17 innings without allowing a run. But even this bright spot isn't immune from the Mets' recent bad luck; Beato is currently on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis.
21. A's acquire outfielder Josh Willingham from the Nationals for pitcher Henry Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown. By midway through spring training, A's coach Mike Gallego told me, "Willingham is our best player.'' He's provided veteran leadership and desperately needed offense (6 home runs and 22 RBIs) to a team built around its superb starting rotation.
22. Marlins add several key bargain pieces, especially to their bullpen. Mike Dunn, Randy Choate and Edward Mujica all have aided a revamped pen. Greg Dobbs (.332) has helped an iffy third-base situation. Catcher John Buck was the one big expense, at $18 million, and he's doing a nice job with a very successful staff.
Other moves that look good early (and again, it's very early):
Red Sox: Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves
Orioles: Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara
Blue Jays: Jon Rauch
Tigers: Jhonny Peralta
White Sox: Phil Humber, Jesse Crain
Angels: Scott Downs
A's: Grant Balfour, Brandon McCarthy
Rangers: Darren Oliver
Mariners: Aaron Laffey
Phillies: Jose Contreras
Braves: Eric Hinske, George Sherrill
Nationals: Livan Hernandez
Mets: Chris Capuano, Taylor Buchholz
Cubs: Reed Johnson
Pirates: Joe Beimel
Rockies: Matt Lindstrom
Giants: Pat Burrell, Ryan Vogelsong
Dodgers: Jon Garland, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla
Diamondbacks: Willie Bloomquist, David Hernandez, J.J. Putz, Melvin Mora
Padres: Chad Qualls, Dustin Moseley, Chris Denorfia
• Five major league executives suggested at least strong doubt as to whether Milton Bradley could find another job after the Mariners designated him for assignment. The reasons listed were poor offense, declining defense and the usual hellacious temper. "He has no upside,'' one exec said. "I think his career is over.'' Two others were equally emphatic that Bradley was done, but two execs left open a small possibility he'd find one more taker on the theory that there's one in every crowd.
• The Pirates want to bring back Andrew McCutchen on a deal for at least five years. The team will not do a deal that is for four years or fewer, which wouldn't buy out any free-agent years. They want to keep McCutchen (who's hitting .227 so far with seven homers and five stolen bases) long-term, but he has to decide whether he wants to commit to an organization which hasn't had a winning season since 1992. The policy to only do deals to buy out free-agent years is a wise one for Pittsburgh.
• The Mets' Carlos Beltran is helping his trade value with a .526 slugging percentage and an NL high 12 doubles. He recently "looked great going from first to third'' on a single, one AL scout said, and he's done pretty well in rightfield too, opening up the possibility he could interest a National League club as well as AL clubs. It's early, but the White Sox, A's and Tigers look like they could be possibilities, and if the Red Sox suffer any attrition, they'd make sense, too. Beltran is thought willing to waive his no-trade clause for the right team.
• Greenwich, Conn., hedge fund manager Stevie Cohen, a longtime friend of the Wilpons, had previously been seen as a favorite to buy the Mets minority stake that's for sale, but word is Cohen doesn't currently have the high bid. There's been more interest than first predicted, and the sale is expected to keep the Wilpons afloat, at least for the foreseeable future (until they resolve their Madoff issue). There is no hard deadline to find the minority buyer, though financial pressures means they need to do it in coming weeks. Still, there seems to be more optimism they might hold onto the team now than there was a few months ago.
• Meanwhile, Dodgers owners Frank McCourt is thought by one person familiar with his financial situation to be in jeopardy of running out of funds before the All-Star break. The Los Angeles Times said it could be by the end of the month, but others think he could go a few weeks beyond that. McCourt already has borrowed $55 million from his TV partner, Fox, but MLB seems determined to prevent future borrowing by McCourt, who's already in debt up to his eyeballs. McCourt recently went out to rightfield at Dodger Stadium, where he didn't receive a bad greeting from fans before repairing to his box by the dugout, where he was booed so lustily he took refuge inside. McCourt has publicly questioned why commissioner Bud Selig has turned against him, but he hasn't questioned why nearly the entire Dodgers fan base has.
• Angels star Kendrys Morales visited a foot specialist in Vail, Colo.,. on Tuesday in hopes of avoiding a second surgery a year after injuring himself in a home-plate celebration following his walkoff grand slam home run. He is still having issues running.
• There seems to be reasonable expectation among people in the know that Phillies' injured star Chase Utley will be back in June.
• The poor Twins seem to be snakebit. Jim Thome, Delmon Young, Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka all are on the disabled list while Justin Morneau is batting his way back from a concussion and also has been hampered in recent days by a virus. There is no timetable for Mauer, who has leg weakness after offseason knee surgery. Both Mauer and the club are said to be committed to keeping the superstar at catcher.
• One high school player moving up some draft boards is catcher Jordan Weems, from Columbus, Ga. The Red Sox and Blue Jays could be interested.
• Two prospects omitted from Monday's column on baseball's best prospects are the Giants' Brandon Belt and the Indians' Drew Pomeranz. Belt started the season with the Giants, hitting .192 in a cameo, and isn't believed far off from returning. Pomeranz has been likened to former Indians star Cliff Lee.
• Top Red Sox shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias is only up while Marco Scutaro is on the disabled list, and the expectation is Iglesias will be sent back to Triple-A Pawtucket once Scutaro or another reinforcement is ready. The Red Sox want Iglesias to show he's ready as a hitter before bringing him back for good. One major league source said he thought it was "highly unlikely'' the Red Sox would trade the prospects it would be needed to acquire Jose Reyes as a rental.
• Royals rookie first baseman Eric Hosmer is impressing folks already. He slammed a liner of the wall in right-center field against Oakland over the weekend that opened more eyes. Royals GM Moore, who doesn't like to overstate things, said, "He's a good looking player.''